Skip to content

Appalachia 2017 – Day 4

The sun continued to shine today. Matter-a-fact, the weather was very un-Kentucky-like. Sunny. 75 degrees. Light breeze. No humidity. Perfect day to continue the great work everyone started at five different work sites yesterday.

As is now the case each morning, a group (albeit smaller than yesterday) traveled to Fish Pond Lake for a sunrise walk or run. Mother Nature didn’t disappoint – with a mist over the water and the sun rising over the mountains, it was a great start to the day.


Our group was divided up into five again today, with a few students shifting work sites due to shifting projects. The first group, again with Kenny in Whitesburg, worked on removing old roofing shingles and cleaning up a yard from a roof replacement. With dozens of steps between the materials to be junked and the dump truck, the crew used a pulley system to raise the buckets of garbage up to street level.


The crew which stayed back at HOMES literally worked removing a hillside – to create stairs and a pathway for future volunteers to reach their sleeping quarters. This group also found a kitten out and about today – a pet many, I’m sure, wanted to smuggle home to CT. (I tried to explain the logicial obstacles including a 10 hour van ride and a hotel stay so the cat remains a Kentucky resident!)

The group working with Johnny continued their deck project as did Harrison’s group. Both groups made good progress and will resume their efforts on Thursday.

The large crew working with John continued their rehab assignment and made excellent progress. As one of the chaperones noted, the work was tough today (they were scrapping paint off the old foundation), but not one student complained. Their efforts were fantastic and the progress that has been made in just two days was excellent.

For dinner this evening, we had our traditional BBQ – burgers, dogs, baked beans, corn bread, and fries. An intense game of ultimate frisbee followed (I think it was 17 vs. 17) … and then a shower or two was enjoyed.

Tomorrow is our “off day”. With the volunteers and HOMES crew leaders working 10 hour days on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, Wednesday is a day off for all. We will be heading to Breaks Interstate Park for some downtime tomorrow. I will share some pictures – I’m sure there will be some paddle boating, hiking and poolside photo opportunities. Continue to send the prayers for a productive and safe week our way. They are much appreciated.

P.S. – apologies for the lack of pictures in this post. The internet connection is being pretty funky – and it’s 11:15 at night – I’m exhausted. So – I’ll will work to get you pictures tomorrow or check out my Twitter (@ndfprincipal) for pictures from the day.

Until tomorrow…


Appalachia 2017 – Day 3

Our first work day in Appalachia began early with a 5:15 alarm for all those interested in walking or running at Fish Pond Lake. When I was telling the kids about the lake, I apparently did a good job selling it – as we had a group of 30 make this short 15 minute drive this morning. I think that’s a record crowd (although I’m willing to wager it will get smaller as the week wears on). We were treated to a crisp morning (it was in the low 50s — a bit chilly, to be honest) and a beautiful sunrise. There was mist over the lake and only the sound of birds chirping in the woods. It really was spectacular. Two of our chaperones (Pauly and Mezz) even tried their luck at fishing, but apparently the fish were still sleeping at that early hour as they didn’t even get a bite. Besides one student taking a wrong turn while running (don’t worry – she was found!), the visit went smoothly and we were back in the vans by 6:45.

Returning back to camp we found out that out group would be divided up into five groups – one staying here at HOMES and four driving to their work site anywhere from 10 to 45 minutes away. Here’s a run down on the worksites:

The first group traveled to Whitesburg with Kenny to work on roofing and windows. Kenny worked with HOMES many, many years ago (when he was 19 or 20) and when we first started coming to Neon back around 2000. It was great to see Kenny back in a HOMES shirt and working with our kids. The group of six worked on shingling a roof and painting windows for a local resident.

The second group worked with Johnny – a long time HOMES employee – finishing a new porch for a local resident. The group will continue their work on Tuesday – working on the banisters and a roof over the porch.

The third group worked with Harrison – who I mentioned last night. This group, too, worked on a porch while also building a ramp for a local family who has a grandson in a wheelchair. They tore down the old porch, dug holes for posts and will continue their work tomorrow.

The fourth group worked on a HOMES-owned property. When HOMES builds a residence, they have retain the right to regain possession of the property should the homeowner default on the mortgage or walk away from the house. This is the case here – and the group painted the interior of the home today – before a new resident moves in. They will continue painting tomorrow – this time outside.


The final group stayed back at HOMES and worked on a long-term project of building a set of stairs to help volunteers more easily reach their sleeping quarters.

As you can see, the work was varied, but as we heard during our reflection this evening, all students and chaperones had a great day one experience and looked forward to returning tomorrow to pick up where they left off today. Everyone was reminded to continue to take in the sights and sounds of Appalachia – and to speak with all those who they meet. Ask questions. Everyone has a story and a perspective. And part of the Appalachia experience is to expand your own perspective – what better way than by talking with local residents.

The forecast for tomorrow continues with the nice weather … and the great work of our group will no doubt continue. More people to meet … and more experiences to be had.

Until Tuesday evening …


Appalachia 2017 – Day 2

Waking up in Harrisonburg, VA, our group had a leisurely start to our day, with breakfast at the hotel and an 8:45 departure scheduled. The sun was shining and the humidity was low – it was a great day to finish our five hour drive down I81 and through the “byways” of Virginia and Kentucky. Per usual, light traffic allowed us an easy drive and with a few bathroom stops and a lunch break factored in, we pulled into HOMES a few minutes before 4:00. We were greeted by a familiar face.

Harrison, our volunteer coordinator and one of the HOMES carpenters, has been working here for the past 22 years. With ND having been to Neon for 15 of the past 17 years, we have worked on many job sites with Harrison and consider him a friend. As always, he greeted us with a warm smile, a few hugs, and helped us to get settled in. The van was unpacked, the kitchen stocked, and bunks claimed. Harrison then shared a few stories (the bear eating in the dumpster last August was the newest in his repitore) and held the safety orientation with the group. 

Quickly following, dinner prep began and a first of what will be many trips to the Food Lion was made for food for both tonight and tomorrow. A special shout out to the parents who treated us to their sauce and meatballs! Everything was delicious and we have leftovers -so it will be enjoyed again. 

Another special thanks to the chaperones and students who prepared cupcakes for dessert to celebrate Joanna and my 12th wedding anniversary. It’s hard to believe that it’s been twelve years … quite often we “celebrate” on this trip, which might not be the most romantic, but is an important part of our past and our present. And with our boys along with us – not to mention a great group of students and adults – it’s always enjoyable. 

To round out our evening, Fr. Cipriani celebrated mass and there were several games of frisbee, basketball and cards. We will find out our projects for the week in the morning. Prior to that, a group of about 30 are signed up to visit Fish Pond Lake for an early morning run or walk. My alarm is set for 5:15 am – with a 5:30 departure to the lake – so I think it’s time to wrap up…

Until tomorrow…

26 Years and Counting …

This is a true Notre Dame tradition. To think that students and chaperones have been traveling from our school to West Virginia or Kentucky for the past 26 years straight is an impressive thought. I’m sure they didn’t know it at the time, but that earliest trip way back in 1992 certainly helped to build a solid foundation (no pun intended). Here we are, nearly three decades later, continuing to bring the ND spirit to those in need in one of the poorer areas in our own nation.

Our two-day journey to Kentucky began this morning at 8am, when the chaperones picked up the rentals vans – returning to ND in the pouring rain. (Having made most of these trips since 1999, I can’t remember another departure that was this rainy.) With raincoats on and umbrellas up, we loaded the luggage van full of supplies and duffle bags. Fr. Cipriani then celebrated mass for the group and families – and we hit the road a bit before 10am. As should come as no surprise, we hit traffic in New York (right before the Tappan Zee Bridge) but then had clear sailing out 278 and down both I-78 and I-81. The sun quickly appeared, and it turned out to be an absolutely beautiful day and great for traveling.


Arriving at our hotel a little after 6, the group had a bit of downtime before heading out to the Golden Corral for a buffet dinner – an Appalachia tradition. The group will enjoy the comforts of the hotel tonight before we hit the road by 9 in the morning – to complete the six or seven hour trek to Kentucky. No doubt, the group of 43, which includes 29 students, 13 chaperones (and the two Cipriano children), will once again bring the ND spirit and mission to all those who we encounter in Neon. As always, keep us in your thoughts and prayers for a safe and successful week.

Until tomorrow evening …

Les Mis Hits It Out of the Park!

OK, I will admit it … when I was informed that Les Miserables was selected as the spring musical, I was a bit skeptical. When I was told this week that the show was nearly three hours long, I was a bit skeptical. After a long week, I was afraid that after the 8pm curtain went up a few minutes late, making it through the whole show would be a struggle. Wrong. Wrong. And wrong.

Once again, Maria Vee worked her directorial magic and after seeing my fair share of ND high school musicals during my nineteen year tenure … I very comfortable saying the show I watched last night was one of the very best.


Congratulations to all of the students in the production. Your voices were fantastic and the countless hours you put into the show (especially during this past “hell week”) paid off! I enjoyed every minute of Les Mis and wish I didn’t have other commitments today – because I would be back to see the show again. It was that good.

Sam and Mark Halstead did a phenomenal job with the sets. Musical Director Stephen Chuba and the orchestra were outstanding. Sally Hong’s choreography was great. Les Mis is no easy show to stage … but you all made it look effortless and for your commitment, I say thank you.

A very special thanks to ND faculty members Josh St. Onge and Lauren Morales and to all the Drama parents for all of their efforts to support our drama program and bring the weekend’s show to reality.

Each and every person on that stage (and working behind the scenes) should be tremendously proud of what you accomplished. Thanks for proving my skepticism unfounded. I couldn’t be prouder of all of you!

P.S. if you are the lucky 7th person to be reading this blog entry, while you don’t win a prize, you are the 40,000th person to read a post on my blog. Congrats!!!

Camden 2017: What an Amazing Experience

At our final evening reflection on Saturday night, we were asked to share how we witnessed God this weekend in Camden. It was so affirming to hear students speak about their weekend and the impact it had upon them – not just Notre Dame students, but also the students from St. John the Baptist on Long Island and Loyala from NYC who were with us this weekend. It was pretty obvious to me that the goals and objectives of this inner-city service and social justice experience were met.

Reflecting back on the day (Saturday), ND was assigned to the Neighborhood Center in south Camden. This organization does everything from provide free meals to run a teen center to offe afternoon young child programming and activities. And they’ve been doing it since 1913 in one form or another. They even have an amazing urban garden which provides the food cooked during the warm weather months.

At Neighborhood Center we met the program coordinator Vedra. Vedra shared her story with us – she grew up in Camden, went to college and inti the business world, toured the US and the world with Cirque de Soleil as a singer. A detail she left out, but was uncovered by the diploma hanging in her office, was that she graduated from Harvard. Camden to Harvard and ultimately back to Camden to serve those in her community. Wow. Powerful stuff.

At The Center, we were tasked with cleaning out the panty. You see, the pantry had too many unwanted guests, and not the ones that walk on two legs. I have to say what an amazing job our crew did considering several of the guests were scurrying for cover and some of their departed relatives were left behind. We ended up removing a significant amount of unuseable food and filling a dumpster. I’ve done a good amount of service work in my day and I can confidently say that this project was one of the messier and probably most difficult one to do. A huge shout out to the ND crew for their amazing work, without complaint, to help make the facility better for the program and the people it serves.

On our first night, one of the Romero Center staff mentioned that if Jesus was physically among us today, where would he be? Quite possibly, he would be with His people and serving those who need it most – maybe right there in Camden. Wit that idea in mind, back to that reflection question from earlier. Where have I witnessed God this weekend? Quite simply, in all the people I’ve met. From the staff at the Romero Center, to the staff and clients at our work site on Friday, to Vedra at Neighborhood on Saturday, to the entire group of students and chaperones in Camden this weekend. I am proud of all these students for traveling far out of their comfort zone time and again and for learning valuable lessons about justice, hunger, poverty, compassion, concern, conviction … and most of all, the importance of serving all.

Big thanks to the staff at the Romero Center, Patrick, Richard and Theresa, and to our amazing ND crew here this weekend: Areli Anderson, Margaux Atkins, Brianni Davallier, Grace Gallagher, Karen Garza, Jalyssa Howell, Delanie O’Keefe, Nicole Posada and, of course, my amazing service partner and wife, Joanna. Thanks for the memories and the valuable lessons, Camden, in life, service and justice. I know we are all looking forward to carrying on the Camden-spirit back home …

“You’re Going Where???”

It was 2007 when we last visited. So much has happened on our end in the ten years since the last time we stepped foot in Camden but so many of the images in the city remain the same. Camden is still a dangerous city. Camden still suffers a high unemployment rate and a low high school graduation rate. Camden still has a mean income rate of under $22,000 per year. Camden has lost over 50,000 jobs since the days when Campbells Soup and RCA Victor called Camden home. Camden still has drug corners and way too many boarded up buildings. Camden’s 77,000 residents (a pretty small city by today’s standards — it’s only 10 square miles) still face many struggles each and every day. But as we were reminded shortly after our arrival at the Romero Center, these 77,000 folks from Camden – and everyone we are going to meet during our short 3 day visit – are all God’s children and it’s great to be with them even for just a short period of time.

After a welcome and dinner, our first evening at Romero was spent watching a document called Pyne Poynt which highlighted both the struggles and successes of Camden through the eyes of the North Camden Little League. It’s available on Amazon Prime and I would highly recommend! It helped to set the tone for our experience and put things in perspective. One of the lines in the movie that resonated with me was when a twenty something life-long resident of Camden said, “Growing up, I thought going to jail was just part of becoming a man”. I can’t even imagine … but that’s reality for far too many here. After a discussion and reflection, it was off to bed…

This morning (Friday) began at 7:15 with a discussion about poverty – and some crazy statistics like: 46 million Americans live below the poverty line ($22,000 or there about) in America. This translates to 1 in 6 children. Families living at or below the poverty line on average have $3 per person per day for food – so a family of four needs to put three meals on the table for just over $10. Healthy eating isn’t an option. Our lesson in this reality came when we broke up into groups of 4 and set off for the local grocery store to spend $12 – and that would be the food we ate today. And that was it. Whatever $12 would buy. 

My “family” was given a scenario, though, where one family member didn’t have a green card (a very real scenario), so they couldn’t receive any government assistance – meaning my family had $9 to spend instead. (Joanna’s group had a “health” issue for a family member and they couldn’t buy anything with more than 5% sodium – not an easy task on a tiny budget.) So off to the store we went to find 3 meals for under $9 (or multiple inexpensive options with low sodium). We decided upon our menu for the day: two bananas for breakfast, peanut butter sandwiches for lunch and pasta with sauce (and toast) for dinner. We spent a little under $8. Let me tell you – what a powerful exercise to accomplish several goals: understanding the impact and extent of poverty, living in solidarity with the millions who go without on a daily basis, and reaffirming an appreciation for how lucky we are. In the end, many essential food groups were missing and we were all definitely more tired than usual from our poor eating – but this is reality for far too many.

Hitting the volunteer sites today took our group to two locations, both across the Ben Franklin Bridge into Philadelphia. My group, which included Areli, Karen, Brianni and Grace, visited Mercy Neighborhood House, an amazing facility started by three nuns back in the nineties to assist Philly’s underserved. With a day care program for over 200 children and an adult day care program for 40, their services and facility were impressive! We were fortunate to work with the adult group today and had the opportunity for a ministry of presence. Arriving while the residents were eating breakfast, we were able to sit down and chat for a while. I had my most interesting conversation with Dolores, a great-great grandmother of two, a great-grandmother to 34 (not a typo) and a grandmother to a dozen. She loved to share stories about everything from Trump to her working days to her daughter. It was such a rewarding experience to see the clients and the staff in action – all God’s children.

Joanna’s group visited Inglis House which serves adults with disabilities. The students included Delaney, Jalyssa, Margaux and Nicole. The group sang songs, completed arts and crafts and had the most important opportunity to sit, talk and get to know some of the residents. As Jalyssa mentioned tonight, “Everyone was in a wheelchair, but they were all so grateful for life.” Yet another chance to interact with God’s children.

Even though so much has changed on our end in the past decade, Camden remains the special place it was when we last visited. It is still a city that needs the attention it deserves to give its people the equality and justice they deserve. Camden is full of opportunity. It’s good to be back.